Saturday, March 31, 2012

Footnote to Lunotte: A chemistry lesson

The previous blog post on a natural wine from the Loire brought us into the realm of natural winemaking, the subject of numerous books and a robust and occasionally acrimonious debate within the wine world. The term itself is contradictory. Winemaking is no more a "natural" process than curing meat or pickling vegetables or preserving fruit by making jam and is indeed complicated enough that there are entire college programs devoted to its study. Many natural winemakers are graduates of such programs, the preeminent American example of which is the University of California at Davis.

MFWC did not go to Davis and had trouble understanding high school chemistry, so the following explanation, cobbled together from the Oxford Wine Dictionary, will not be a review of the chemical transformations involved in fermentation. Instead, it will emphasize the numerous choices that confront winemakers as they take the grapes from their vineyards and turn them into wine.

The basic concept is simple. Sugar is converted into alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide through the oxygen-free metabolism of yeast. The sugar, of course, comes from the grapes that are crushed into must, which differs from juice because it includes stem fragments, skin, seeds, and pulp. The vintner has to decide what grapes to plant and when to pick them, since the later they're picked, the more sugar they'll have. He also has to decide whether to include the stems, which make for a more tannic wine, and, in the case of white wines and roses, how long to expose the skins to the juice. He also must choose the container in which the fermentation will take place: stainless steel, concrete, or wood. Old oak or new oak? French oak or American oak? What size is this container going to be? All of these issues are the subject of considerable thought and discussion even when their effect on the final product is unclear and may not be understood scientifically.

Yeast turns out to be even more complicated. There are numerous yeast species, and their classification remains a scientific puzzle. Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the species most frequently used for making wine and beer and leavening bread, and there are several hundred strains of it. Making matters even more complex, there are wild yeasts to which grapes are naturally exposed as they grow as well as over 100 different kinds of cultured yeasts that are added to the grape juice. Cultured yeasts are favored for their predictability and essential for producing a wine with more than about 5% alcohol, since most natural yeasts die above that level. Natural winemakers like to let the natural yeasts work early in the fermentation process, though it's again scientifically unclear whether that has any effect on the end product.

So we have grapes and yeast. In addition to carbon dioxide, the fermentation process also generates heat that can kill the yeast and thus halt the fermentation. This is where the vintner's decision about the size of container becomes important. The larger the container, the greater the need for refrigeration. (To reference the preceding post, remember that the Lunotte is fermented in a relatively small container.) The fermentation of red grapes takes four to seven days, while that of white grapes can take weeks, which adds to the challenge of making white wine, since the process must be watched and managed for much longer.

Fermentation is a complex process, and sulfur - really sulfur dioxide - helps winemakers control it by killing bacteria and wild yeast and fostering a rapid, clean fermentation in part by preventing oxidation. Literally 99%+ of all winemakers use sulfur in this way. But sulfur has a very unpleasant taste, and so lower levels of sulfur are desirable in any event. Sulfur dioxide may also combine with other compounds in the wine, whereby it loses its noxious smell but also its beneficial effects. Here I can only quote the Oxford Dictionary: "Good winemaking practice aims to maximize the free to bound ratio of sulfur dioxide; this permits winemakers to add less total sulfur dioxide to achieve the same level of protection for the wine." Hence the natural winemakers' focus on "sans soufre," which is not a virtue in itself but a reflection of careful winemaking.      

The scientific here thicket becomes dense very quickly, but the central point should be clear. The wine you drink, whether it's Chateau Lafite or Yellow Tail, is the product of numerous choices by the winemaker as well as a series of chemical processes that may not be well-understood even though they're the product of intense study and dialogue. Moreover, the means by which winemakers try to spur those processes change over time, just as tastes in wine change. A wine like Lunotte is fascinating because its maker is trying to make some of his decisions clear, which helps explain not only why his wine tastes the way it does, but why other wines may taste the way they do.  


When the natural seems strange

The 2010 Lunotte Rossignoux is one odd bottle of wine, starting with its color, a fairly deep, almost cloudy yellow, which is not what you'd expect for a sauvignon blanc from Touraine in the Loire. There's a very light effervescence initially and a nose that's hard to place, but the tiny bubbles disappear and the smell settles into a pleasant grapefruit aroma typical of sauvignon blanc within 15 minutes. On the palate, this is the love child of muscadet and chenin blanc. On first swill it has the same bracing acidity as the former which is followed by a a subtly rich honey taste and some of the viscosity of chenin blanc. I even picked up a little juniper berry on the back end. Tasty, especially with cheese, but weird. Even weirder, a MFWC member whose tastes I thought skewed to the traditional Californian loved it.     

We had stumbled into the world of natural winemaking, that widely hyped phenomenon that turns out to be fiendishly difficult to pin down beyond the incantation of a few stock terms such as small producer, hand-harvesting, low sulfur, old barrels that together are the antithesis of the California chardonnay that your mother (OK, my mother) spent years guzzling. Definitional difficulties aside, Christophe Foucher, who produces the Lunotte, is clearly talented, and by these two descriptions a typical natural winemaker: and

Foucher has 5.5 hectacres on seven plots near Tours. He treats his vines with as little insecticide and herbicide as possible and lets grass grow on every other row of his vineyard. Foucher uses older, smaller oak barrels, and local yeasts (yeast is critical for fermentation). He stints on sulfur but allows his wines to undergo malolactic fermentation, a practice far more common in reds than whites and one that accounts for the light fizziness in the Lunotte.    

There's a lot of chemistry in the previous paragraph, and MFWC is not qualified to explain it, though he will try in the next blog post. But this is chemistry in the service of commerce, and the essential commercial point is easy to understand. To be salable, wine like any product has to be consistent and stable, especially if the wine is a mass market brand. Yellow Tail should taste the same from bottle to bottle and year to year, and it should be stable enough chemically to endure a wide range of conditions. Making such a product is a challenge, because wine is not inherently stable or consistent, but it's one that natural winemakers tend to reject because they don't want their wines to taste like everyone else's. They see winemaking as an expression of personality and geographic identity. If Yellow Tail is McDonald's or Pringles or Olive garden (or, to be fair, Chipotle or at the high end BLT Steak), then Lunotte/Foucher is the local chef who wants to use fresh ingredients and show off his creative flair.

Foucher does this affordably and well. Wine geeks can ask how he does it, while those not burdened by such pretension can simply enjoy the results.      

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sticking up for white bordeaux

At a dinner last year, several friends were discussing a colleague's recent birthday celebration. No one questioned the honoree's right to choose the wine, but his choice left the group puzzled. "White bordeaux?" one wondered. "Who drinks white bordeaux? What's even in white bordeaux?" I could so little more than name the grapes: sauvignon blanc and semillon.

That skepticism and ignorance are not isolated phenomena. A generation ago, whites accounted for about a quarter of the wine produced in the region in southwestern France, a proportion that has fallen to about 10%. Sauternes, made primarily from semillion, retains its iconic status as one of the world's great sweet wines, but the dry whites of Bordeaux have fallen into disregard, and producers in the region have shifted production to grapes from which red is made: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, and carmenere. That leaves less room for sauvignon blanc and semillion, which until the 1970s was the widely planted grape in Bordeaux.  

I came by a few bottles of white bordeaux in the fall when a salesman at Frankly Wines in Tribeca recommended a 1999 L'Espirit de Chevalier from Pessac-Leognan because of my affinity for the whites of Lopez de Heredia. Just south of the city of Bordeaux, Pessac-Leognan is a sub-region of Graves, which gets its name from the gravel that underlies its soil. The L'Espirit is the second wine of Domaine de Chevalier, one of the best producers of white in the appellationaccording to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine along with Chateau Haut-Brion, whose reds are among the most expensive wines in the world. Domaine de Chevalier wines can go for over $100 a bottle retail depending on the vintage, but the '99 L'Espirit de Chevalier can be had at few stores in New Jersey for $20 bottle, pricing that suggests its unpopularity.

It's a steal at that price and was well worth the $30 I paid for it at Frankly Wines. The semillon give the wine a nuttiness that's rich but balanced by the acid from the sauvignon blanc that's about 70% of the blend. The flavor profile is broadly similar to Heredia's wines. L'Espirit lacks their complexity, but it held up very well on its own over the course of a few hours with some cheese. The salesman recommended pairing it with scallops, perhaps sauteed in some brown butter that would match the nuttiness of the wine. Munching on some hazelnuts while drinking the L'Espirit wouldn't be a bad idea, either.    

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Remembering the Baltimore beehive in Istanbul

When I was a child in Baltimore in the 1970s, ethnic dining meant Greek food. Little Italy was past its prime even then, and because we had a garden in the summer, my mother made excellent tomato sauce, which meant her spaghetti, manicotti, and lasagna were better than anything to be had downtown even though she was not of Italian descent. Anyone not from Baltimore would have seen Haussner's as downright bizarre with its kitschy art collection, waitresses with beehive hairdos and spectacular Baltimore accents, and menu divided between German classics and Maryland seafood, but for us it was the height of fine dining, a place for special occasions where jackets and ties were required, the crabcakes were perfect, and people ordered a custard pie topped with strawberries the size of golf balls for dessert even in the dead of winter.

For the truly exotic, you had to go to Ikaros in East Baltimore's Greektown. If the leitmotiv at Haussner's was the word Hon impeccably pronounced in the local patois, at Ikaros it was the endlessly repeating Greek instrumental music that faded into the background as the room filled and conversation became louder. (Click on the website to hear it: The owner had a spectacular handlebar moustache, and his food was strange, intense, delicious, totally satisfying in a elemental way. Salad with feta cheese and olives. Moussaka. Shish kebab. Lamb shank. Baklava.

I thought of Ikaros when I walked into Karakoy restaurant in Istanbul last month for dinner. The soup, fried lamb liver, and mastic pudding I'd had there for lunch that day were all so good that I wandered back across Galata Bridge several hours later. The meze I had at dinner were just as classic and delicious, but it was the music, the generosity, the leisurely way of eating, and, the next night, a lamb shish kebab that reminded me of Ikaros and gave me the same feeling of pure happiness with food at once unfamiliar and totally comforting, like a quince in sugar syrup slathered in a mascarpone-like cheese, or a simple zucchini meze.

That sensibility permeated my meals in Istanbul. Topaz, a chic restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus, offered perfect green olives I could have eaten all day and a perfect braised lamb. Ciya in Kadikoy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, had the great soups that start with broth made from fresh chickens, a dessert of fresh black walnut halves with cheese, and a thyme infusion that I later learned is a tea popular in Egypt and Lebanon as well but was not less soothing for that. At Nar, on the top floor of a department store near the Grand Bazaar, I had lamb and stewed fennel in a chicken broth flavored with lemon and a little yogurt, and unlikely but delicious combination of individually flavorful elements.

And each morning at the quiet, affordable and otherwise unremarkable hotel near Hagia Sofia where I stayed, the cook presented a delicious freshly hard-boiled egg seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little olive oil. One bite was enough to prove the merits of the preparation. Further frills are superfluous for cooks that begin with ingredients that good.

Evolution Down Under

Australian wine has clear associations for American drinkers. From a $6 bottle of Yellow Tail to Penfolds reserves that can go for hundreds of dollars a bottle, the wines are high in alcohol and robust bordering on overwhelming. The rise of Yellow Tail as a popular brand is one of the great marketing stories of the last generation, and it's only the most conspicuous example of a wine industry that's very astutely positioned its products for the American market. But as Lettie Teague noted in a Wall Street Journal piece on Friday, Australian shiraz has become significantly less popular in the U.S. in recent years because of the same traits that had once made it so popular. Sommeliers dislike it because it tends to overpower food, and the natural wine crowd looks askance at the way many Aussie wines are made.     

But wines from Australia and its neighbor New Zealand are a good deal more complex then their stereotypes suggest. (For New Zealand, that means lots of Sauvignon Blanc at a range of prices.) The region's haute cuisine leans heavily on Asian influences that go well with lighter wines such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir then with big reds or heavily oaked Chardonnays, and Australian consumers seem to have become more sophisticated, reducing their consumption of simple three and five-liter box wines in favor of bottles. A tasting of three wines last week at Shawn's Wine and Spirits, a very respectable store on 7th Ave. in Park Slope, suggested the complexity of wine from the antipodes.

A representative of the Fine Wine Agency in New York, which focuses on bioodynamic wines from the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Spain, poured a Shiraz from South Australia and two New Zealand Pinot Noirs. The $14 Kingston Estate 2009 Shiraz was much more restrained than its stereotype and quite pleasant, if at 14.5% still high in alcohol. There was surprisingly little fruit, and the wine had a nice evenness on the palate.

The two pinots, the Soho Wine Co. 2010 White Label and the Cockfighter's Ghost 2007 Reserve, were light enough to remind me of reds from the Jura, though the rep suggested Alsace as a point of reference, since its climate is similar to that of the New Zealand region where the grapes for both wines are grown. Soho Wine Co., he said, aims to combine a sophistication of packaging with natural winemaking, while the Cockfighter's Ghost has something of a cult following at home. I liked the light earthiness of both wines, though I suspect at around $25 they'll be a tough sell in the U.S. But they'd be perfect on the wine list of restaurants with Asian-inspired food like the Slanted Door in San Francisco, a critical step in breaking down the cliches about reds from Down Under.